There has been a lot of media buzz lately about Chineasy, a book and Chinese character learning method by ShaoLan Hsueh. Her method was first publicized in a TED talk she gave in 2013 and recently published in Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese. As someone who has struggled for years to learn Chinese characters, I was intrigued. It turns out that her method is not quite as revolutionary as she claims. It boils down to associating an image with the character which both represents the meaning of the character and illustrates it graphically, so for 火 (huo, meaning fire) she shows the character engulfed in fire, or for 山 (shan, meaning mountain), a picture of a mountain superimposed on the character. In most cases, she uses the historical origin of the character for her mnemonic. She then shows how characters combine to make new words, as in volcano, “fire mountain” (火山). She is by no means the first to advocate using such a method. Many learners of Chinese are familiar with Rick Harbaugh’s Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary, either the book or the web site, which presents a series of zipu or “character genealogies” which show graphically the close interconnections between over 4000 characters according to the 2000 year-old Shuowen Jiezi by Xu Shen and subsequent research by traditional etymologists. Another resource that explores graphically the origins of characters and associates them with images or little stories is the very well done Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters by Alison and Laurence Mathews.
What distinguishes Chineasy is above all the very nice color illustrations by Noma Bar. Characters are grouped together based on the principal character used (such as a variety of combinations using the fire character). The characters, however, are chosen not based on their use frequency, but based on whether they combine with other characters for which Noma Bar has found an appropriate illustration. This makes for entertaining browsing through the book, but maybe not for practical vocabulary learning. Another caveat is that the characters used are the traditional character set, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but not in mainland China, which uses the simplified character set. This in fact makes it much easier to find appropriate illustrations, as the traditional characters reflect more accurately the origins of the characters.
Chineasy is not the first method to advocate learning characters first, before learning how to speak. This was most notably championed by James Heisig in his series of books on Japanese and Chinese, starting with Remembering the Kanji. This is not an approach widely used today. In fact the all-oral approach of the popular ChinesePod podcasts assumes learners will probably not be interested in learning characters, or will do so later, after learning to speak. At any rate, I would agree with the comments by Victor Mair on the LanguageLog blog, that the statement by ShaoLan Hsueh in her TED talk that learning to write Chinese is much easier than learning to speak to be very different from my experience and, I would venture to say, from that of the majority of Chinese learners. However, given the difficulty of learning Chinese characters, I welcome any new thinking about approaches to keeping those pesky characters to stick in my brain. And the illustrations by Noma Bar are indeed very nice.